Many of us have experienced procrastination and felt its draining effect on our productivity and emotions. Join us as we unpack what psychology has to say about procrastination and how we might overcome it.
Does this sound familiar?
It is 8:43pm on a Tuesday evening. You’ve finished dinner and you have planned to start on an important piece of work that is due on Friday. Even though you are sure you were heading to your desk to start working, you have somehow ended up on the couch watching TV. Or, you’ve sat down to work and you realise that you have spent the last 40 minutes reorganising your folders or reading something unrelated. It seems like no matter what you do, you feel positively repelled by your task. You say something like “It’s fine, I’ll work on it the whole day tomorrow” before diving into something to distract you from your mounting worry.
What is it?
Procrastination has been defined as the delay between intention and action. It happens when we fully intend on doing something and have the time to do it, but end up putting it off in favour of a less stressful activity. Tasks that have been repeatedly put off become increasingly difficult to start and can begin to impact our day to day functioning by stressing us out and making us feel out of control.
Procrastination affects almost everyone, at some stage of our lives. Across studies, around 90% of students report to suffer the effects of procrastination, while it is estimated that about 20% of adults feel that procrastination seriously affects their lives. The good news is that a great deal of research has been done to understand procrastination and how we can take steps to manage our tendency to delay our well-intentioned actions.
Why is it bad?
While procrastination primarily affects our performance and wellbeing, there are a range of ways that it can negatively impact our lives. Our tendency to delay important tasks makes us less productive and the work we do produce often doesn’t truly reflect our capabilities. Big projects can become daily sources of stress and anxiety, and take a toll on our physical and mental health in the long term.
Procrastination can even affect our relationships. We tend to reassign time that we would normally spend with friends and family to catch up on tasks we could have already completed. Procrastination can even put us at odds with our fundamental beliefs about being human, like believing that our time in this world is limited. This can cause a deep sense of unease when we feel like we have not handled a precious resource with the appropriate amount of care.
How does it work?
As with most things in psychology, procrastination can be understood from a number of different perspectives. When discussing the pleasure principle, Freud suggested that we instinctively seek to maximise pleasure while minimising pain in pursuit of satisfying our unconscious needs. Even though we know that doing our unpleasant task would make us feel good in the long run, we avoid it because we want to feel good now.
Personality studies have shown that those of us who are more impulsive or who experience our emotions more intensely are more likely to procrastinate. Social perfectionists, those of us who feel driven to perfection by voices other than our own, are also at risk of worrying so much about an important task that we won’t even start it.
Behaviourists say that procrastination is difficult to tackle because our avoidant behaviours are strengthened through negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is a type of conditioning in which our responses to situations are reinforced because they successfully remove the thing we don’t like. When we feel stressed-out over a task that we have been putting off and spend an evening distracting ourselves with something less stressful, we actually reinforce our avoidant behaviour because it helped us cope with worry we felt about doing our work.
How can I overcome it?
Some suggest that developing our emotional intelligence is key. Research has shown that people who are better at perceiving, understanding and managing their emotions are less likely to procrastinate. A good start can be to ask ourselves a few questions about our feelings when we procrastinate. A bit of probing can reveal why a particular task is so daunting, giving us some insight on how to approach it. If we find a task too big to start, we could start trying to complete one part instead of the whole thing. Dreading one part of a task shows us what part we think will be the most challenging and lets us start thinking of ways to make that part easier.
Research has shown that how we think about our work can affect when we do it. Leading experts on procrastination suggest moving from goal intentions, which are more about what we desire, towards implementation intentions, which are more like actionable plans. This is supported by research that shows how thinking more concretely about our tasks increases the likelihood that we will complete them.
Saying “I’m going to work on my paper tonight” is vague and abstract: it lacks specifics and reflects more of an end goal rather than a plan to complete it. To help us complete our tasks, we could use a more formulated way of thinking such as: in situation X, I will do behaviour Y to achieve sub-goal Z. “I’m going to work on my paper tonight” turns into “In the hour after dinner, I will read 3 articles, on that section for my paper. This turns our vague idea into something concrete, measurable and recognises it as a smaller part of our larger goal.
Using this knowledge, many people have learnt to recapture working hours that would normally slip away and cause mounting worry. By being more thoughtful with our intentions, we too can have a plan ready for how we would like to complete our tasks and how they will contribute to our personal goals.
Has procrastination been a challenge for you or someone you know? Share with a friend and tell us your best way to beat procrastination!
If psychology interests you, you may wish to explore the subject on a deeper level. SACAP offers a range of psychology courses that can help pave the way for a career in psychology. The study of psychology, as well as being a fascinating subject in its own right, hones skills that will be of service to you in any number of career paths, For more information about studying at SACAP, enquire now.